Kafka, the Artist

September 29, 2021   •   By Nicholas Sawicki

“I CAN TELL YOU the name of a very great artist — Franz Kafka,” said Max Brod to a circle of renegade artist friends in Prague in 1907. He brought out a selection of drawings by Kafka for them to look at. One of the artists, Friedrich Feigl, had been to secondary school with Kafka. He was surprised to find that the reserved schoolboy of his youth was now making pictures. Feigl later recalled that they “evoked the memory of early Paul Klee or [Alfred] Kubin.”


The author of some of the most acclaimed works of the modern literary canon, including The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and The Metamorphosis (1915), was drawing and sketching extensively before he published a single word. Brod, Kafka’s closest friend and literary executor, held on to as many of the drawings as he could. When Kafka died in 1924, Brod famously disregarded the author’s instructions that everything was “to be burned, completely and unread.” He spent the rest of his life publishing and promoting Kafka’s work, and when he fled the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1939 for Palestine, he took Kafka’s papers and drawings with him. He published a small selection of the pictures in his biographical writings on Kafka and sold two of them to the Albertina in Vienna. Others appeared in Kafka’s diaries, today at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which Brod edited for publication in 1948. This is all the world has known until now of Kafka’s art — scarcely 40 or so drawings and sketches from what was once a far larger corpus, much of it lost or destroyed, and the rest mostly invisible to the public until this year.


In late May, the National Library of Israel made over 130 pages of Kafka’s drawings available in an online database, as part of its effort to catalog and digitize Brod’s estate. Brod died in 1968, and the Kafka papers he brought with him from Prague have been the subject of legal wrangling ever since. The long and much-publicized struggle over their ownership finally ended in 2016, when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled to transfer them to the National Library. The library has now made scans of them digitally accessible, and they will keep Kafka readers and scholars busy for years to come.


Of all these materials, the drawings are the least-known aspect of Kafka’s work. Several hundred individual drawings fill the scanned pages: loose sheets of unruled notebook paper and lined notepads; scraps of discarded typescript and colored paper; the backs of envelopes, cards, and letters; and, in one case, a black composition book full of ink and pencil drawings, in which Kafka also wrote prose.


There has always been a temptation with Kafka to link the literary and the visual, and there will certainly be insights to gain about his writing from his drawings. But there is another way to view them — as an index to Kafka’s own concentrated engagement with the art of his time. The most relevant reference points here are not, as Feigl reminisced, Paul Klee or Alfred Kubin. To better understand Kafka’s art, we must instead turn back the clock even further, and closer to home, to the visual world of Prague when Kafka was approaching his early 20s. This was the period between the start of his law school studies at Charles University in 1901 and the beginning of his employment at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in 1908, the desk job he would hold for the rest of his life.


Prague at the time was a hothouse of visual culture. The city saw an explosion of artists and exhibitions, and new periodicals and illustrated magazines were launching by the dozens. Kafka’s interest in the visual arts was then at its height, and although he did not aspire to an artistic career, he turned to drawing as a creative outlet, as he did to writing. He even took private drawing lessons — they “spoiled all of my talent,” he later complained. Conventional academic drawing, in any case, held little interest for him. Of the newly unearthed drawings and sketches in the National Library’s database, only a small handful follow in that more traditional direction: two knurled, somewhat faltering pencil portraits of Kafka’s mother, one of them accompanied by a self-portrait, and a more confident, technically sophisticated pencil drawing of a young man’s head that suggests a higher level of proficiency than has been traditionally assumed, and which Kafka himself plainly recognized as a dead end. The rest of the drawings and sketches trend differently, taking their cues from elsewhere.


More detailed analysis will have to wait for the catalog now in preparation by the literary historian and Kafka scholar Andreas Kilcher, Franz Kafka: The Drawings, to be published in German this fall by C. H. Beck, with essays by Kilcher and Judith Butler. Yet with the exception of the composition book containing Kafka’s ink drawings, which the database dates to 1923, the majority of drawings clearly have a much earlier provenance. They are predominantly in pencil, and most of them depict figures that are either stationary or taking part in otherwise common activities, such as taking a walk, playing cards, drinking, or riding on horseback. They are all line and contour, and their bodies and limbs lie flat with the page, either blank or filled in solid with pencil or ink. Rarely do the drawings give a sense of mass or depth, and Kafka frequently exaggerates features, proportions, and gestures to amplify some aspect of the figure or its activities to which he wants to draw attention. More than anything, the pictures connect with the style of line illustration and caricature popularized at the start of the 20th century in Prague and neighboring Germany, with which Kafka was closely familiar as a voracious consumer of magazines and print culture.


In one early pencil drawing, cut down from a letter, a middle-aged man with a bowler hat and cane walks a dog. His body is pitched slightly forward and stretched beyond normal proportions, and his long coat flares out at the knees, above a pair of checkered pants. The man’s arms are comically elongated, flat sticks, his hands like round mittens. The head is in profile and too small for the body, and it reads like a caricature, with a broad moustache, stub nose, and a half-round wedge for an eye, angled downward to give the face a stern expression. The cut in the page leaves only the back of the dog’s body visible, and here the lines are less sticklike, more curved and unrestrained. They lend the creature a bulbous shape, with oversized feet that Kafka sheathes in ribboned boots.


Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama; The National Library of Israel. Max Brod Archive

There are more pictures of walking men on the back of Kafka’s pencil portrait of himself and his mother. The two portraits on the front are naturalistic and convey detail and depth, but the figures on the back are like the majority of Kafka’s drawings and sketches — little more than outlines. Eleven figures in various poses hover and stride over the page, their features only notionally indicated. A horizontal slash stands in for the eyes or mouth, and little information about the particularity of the subject is conveyed beyond pose and gesture, which is where Kafka places most of his emphasis. A man marches forward with a book in hand, another is running, and another gesticulates wildly with arms and legs splayed, while at the top right of the page, a stout older woman with her arms at her sides stares forward into space. Similar figures fill Kafka’s black composition book, from which many drawings were at some point excised and stored separately.


Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama; The National Library of Israel. Max Brod Archive

Before the pandemic, when it was still possible to do so, I was in the reading room of the Czech National Library looking through some of the many illustrated artistic, literary, and satirical magazines that sprang up in Prague during these years of Kafka’s life. One of the artists who published in them was a close friend of Kafka’s and Brod’s, Max Horb. The three of them were law school classmates, but in 1903 Horb quit his legal education to study painting. He was among the first in their German-speaking Jewish social circle to break free of the strictures of the more traditional professions that Kafka himself felt destined to pursue. Part of the avant-garde group of Prague artists with whom Brod shared Kafka’s drawings, he was prolific as a caricaturist and illustrator.


Horb died prematurely in late 1907, and afterward, many of his drawings and possessions were distributed to his friends. Among the materials now online is an envelope addressed to Horb from October 1905, covered in pencil drawings that the database attributes to Kafka, but which may or may not be in his hand. The difficulty of distinguishing authorship has everything to do with the way the exaggerated, caricatured figures that fill the envelope, more middle-aged men in profile, could have come from either Kafka or Horb, or indeed any number of other Prague artists who sketched in a similar mode. Kafka’s style of exaggerating bodies and faces, and his overall schematic treatment of form, indeed trace their beginnings to this moment, to the way in which caricature at the start of the century presented the human figure — the relative scale of its features pushed out of proportion, the body itself either black or an empty vessel delineated by contour, heads and faces often in profile and rendered only with line, and an overall narrative quality to the scene. Kafka even inscribed titles on a few of the drawings, as if emphasizing that there is a story in the picture.


When we construct an image for ourselves of a particular artist’s or writer’s work, we do so based on what has, through chance or effort, survived the passage of time. The record is always incomplete, and Brod said that he had to salvage some of Kafka’s art “from the wastebasket.” He was hardly meticulous, and he handled the drawings loosely, keeping them in unsorted envelopes and folders, and making no effort to record their dates or to indicate when he received them and under what circumstances. His only real intervention was to sometimes assign titles to them of his own creation.


This is nevertheless what we have, and to sift through these drawings and sketches in their new database, the images slow to load in a somewhat cumbersome interface, gives the feeling of being unmoored. They come to us without a context, and there is little to grab hold of except for the drawings themselves. In that sense, they arrive in a more free and open state than Kafka’s literary work, which has been the subject of more scholarship and interpretation than that of nearly any other writer of the early 20th century. Brod never really wrote about the pictures, even though he expressed a desire to do so, and little has been written about them at all — which is not surprising given that the majority have been out of view for a century or longer. Maybe all this is for the best. We are seeing Kafka’s art now for the first time, and the only assumptions we have to work around are our own.


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Nicholas Sawicki is a historian of early-20th-century European art and associate professor and chair of the Department of Art, Architecture, and Design at Lehigh University. He writes frequently on modernism in Prague.